Besides Rubik’s Cubes, Michael Jackson, and Max Headroom, few elements of pop culture are more stereotypically ’80s than the movies of John Hughes. From the hairstyles to the wardrobes to the pumping synth-driven soundtracks to the frequent presence of Molly Ringwald, Hughes’ films define the decadent decade almost as much as it defined them. But the writer-director’s ’80s classics–Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, all of which will screen this month as part of the Michigan Theater’s “Kids in America” series–hold up differently from other films of the decade. Where modern fondness for movies like Back to the Future or E.T. is primarily rooted in nostalgia, Hughes’ films remain resonant. Beneath the dated stylistic veneer, they epitomize the “teen movie” in the best possible sense: they not only relate to teens, they encourage any adult to relate to them as well.
Hughes’ classics consistently find his characters at the crossroads between immaturity and at least some semblance of maturity, between self-absorption and newfound empathy, between compensatory bluster and baring one’s soul. See Sam Baker, Ringwald’s character in Sixteen Candles, a prime example of the stereotypical eye-rolling, disenchanted, sarcastic teenager. Hughes doesn’t try to soften this behavior or make it endearing. But he shows us the vulnerabilities that inform it: body image issues, worries about repeating the presumably dull lives of one’s parents, and the all-consuming fear of vulnerability.
Hughes’ empathy is on full display in The Breakfast Club as well. He presents five archetypal high schoolers, first proving his understanding of the life circumstances that inform their social roles before subverting them. But, perhaps even more interestingly, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes empathizes with his characters so much that he doesn’t let them “mature” at all. The emotional catharsis of Bueller and company’s rollicking id-fueled romp is a petulant moment of major destructive rebellion against parental authority. But Hughes lets us recognize the emotional power of that moment, even if we may disagree with its outward manifestation.
Of Hughes’ ’80s classics, Bueller finds him at his most gleefully, unapologetically, joyfully juvenile. It’s both one of his most fun and most frustrating films, but it also brings to light one of the most important elements of Hughes’ appeal: the filmmaker always remained a teenager at heart. He never came off as some wise elder looking down his nose at misguided characters before reforming them. Hughes remembered that there was something sad and raw and honest and fun and beautiful about being too young to know better. His movies still have the power to pull us back to adolescence with startling clarity, reminding us of the weird magic of our own teen years and encouraging empathy with the teens around us now.
The Michigan Theater shows Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club on October 10, Sixteen Candles on October 17, and Pretty in Pink on October 24.